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Movie Curiosities: A Most Violent Year

Awards contenders are typically released near the end of the year, the better to stay fresh in the minds of Academy voters and relevant to the moviegoing public. This is the way it’s been for years. But this awards season, the trend was taken way too far. Not only did we have way too many awards hopefuls in a dogpile on top of each other between Christmas and New Year’s, but we also got movies released so late in the year that they didn’t have time to earn any votes. This was the fate of Selma, which got snubbed six ways from Sunday in large part because it wasn’t finished soon enough to send out screeners in a timely manner.

Another example is A Most Violent Year, a critical darling with a 90 percent Tomatometer, an Oscar-friendly cast and a theatrical release of… wait for it… December 31st, 2014. So of course it got shut out of the Oscars entirely. The best it could manage was a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination for Jessica Chastain. It really makes you wonder what the hell the distributors could possibly have been thinking.

The choice of release date instantly doomed the movie to obscurity, drowned out by awards hoopla, films that actually got nominated, and the typical cinematic garbage that gets swept under the rug this time of year. And you know what the worst part is? This movie deserved better. It may be slightly flawed, but it still deserved so very much better.

Our protagonist for today is Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s joined by former Juilliard classmate Jessica Chastain, who plays his lovely wife and business partner. The story opens in New York City, 1981, when Abel has just made a real estate deal that will either make or break his heating oil business. He’s put down a 40 percent deposit, so all he has to do is pay the other 60 percent in a month and he’ll buy the land outright. Missing the deadline and losing the deposit shouldn’t be a problem, except that fate seemed to pick that exact moment for everything to hit the fan.

See, it seems that Abel’s business has been under attack by pirates. Seriously, Abel’s delivery trucks are getting hijacked on a regular basis and being driven somewhere to drain the oil inside. The constant oil thefts, plus the mounting medical costs of the drivers getting injured in the process, means that Abel’s business is getting put in a tough financial bind at the worst possible moment. Of course, it doesn’t help that no one has any idea who’s behind the attacks or why they’re only going after Abel’s business.

Then we have Assistant District Attorney Lawrence, played by David Oyelowo. This is the guy who’s been put in charge of overseeing the local oil industry, and he makes it abundantly clear that he’s not interested in helping Abel with his stolen trucks. Voters and taxpayers tend to be more favorable toward politicians who actively work against crooked businessmen, you see. So Lawrence is using every excuse, trick, and favor he can possibly muster to find any sign of wrongdoing and get Abel charged with a crime. This despite the fact that Abel claims to run a business that is no more corrupt than the next oil company (take that for what you will) and he has absolutely no financial trickery to hide. So far as he knows and/or admits.

Last but not least, there are the Teamsters to deal with. Getting back to the truck hijackings, Abel hires union drivers who are none too happy with the prospect of getting seriously injured by pirates. So union boss O’Leary (Peter Gerety) is lobbying for all of Abel’s drivers to carry guns. On the one hand, it’s pretty much the only way for the drivers to feel safe on the job, with the way things are going. On the other hand, it’s a huge liability issue. What if a driver engages in a shootout with hijackers and someone gets caught in the crossfire? What if a driver uses his gun for violence someplace else? What if the hijackers come back with even bigger guns? In all three scenarios, it’s a safe bet that everyone would point fingers at Abel for making the call to arm his drivers, and the union would conveniently forget how they pushed him into it.

So Abel makes the very difficult call not to arm his drivers, which gives the unfortunate impression that he’s not doing anything at all. In truth, Abel simply thinks that caving in to pressure and resorting to violence would be a show of weakness, no better than giving up and shutting down his business. Instead, Abel prefers to show the strength not to fight back and to keep on with business as usual.

Which is all well and noble, of course, but those are still his drivers risking their necks every time they go out to earn a paycheck for their families. Abel is effectively trading the lives of his employees for the sake of easing his conscience, and that’s not necessarily his call to make. This dilemma is explored in heartbreaking fashion by way of the character Julian, played by Elyes Gabel in a starmaking turn.

Everything with Abel comes back to his conscience. He doesn’t want to be a gangster or a crooked businessman. He doesn’t want to maintain authority through the constant threat of force and he wants to run a legitimate business without anything to fear from the law. Yet Isaac keeps the character from being straight-laced and boring because he plays the role with such strength and pathos. The guy knows that he looks weak, he knows that his ideals may end up destroying him, and there’s a sense that he really could be a true gangster if he was okay with that. Yet he chooses to take the high road, come what may, and that makes him instantly sympathetic.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Abel’s wife. Anna is a woman with a gigantic chip on her shoulder, and it’s implied that she’s related to some very powerful figures in the criminal underground. She’s a woman who’s not the least bit afraid of getting her hands dirty, and she won’t tolerate any slight towards her or her family. Needless to say, that makes for a dangerous combination. Yet Anna still comes off as a sympathetic character because her intentions are clearly pure. This is a woman who would risk everything — up to and including her own life — for the sake of her family. Plus, it helps that Chastain and Isaac have more than enough chemistry to sell their characters’ love for each other, no matter how bitter their arguments get.

Moreover, Anna is hard to completely dislike because she’s never completely wrong. After all, where’s the harm in playing dirty when the entire system is rigged against you? Is it even possible to be an honest businessman in a dishonest industry? Hell, when doing the right and legal thing gets people killed and corrupt business practices are bountifully rewarded, why would anyone even want to be an honest businessman? All of these are questions asked by the film in various ways, and they are superbly explored.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, we have Albert Brooks as the Morales’ attorney. He more or less acts as the middle ground between the two spouses: He’s practical enough to know that some rules have to be bent, but he wants to keep the business at least clean enough for the feds snooping around. Brooks fares significantly better than Oyelowo, who was clearly cast in this movie pre-Selma. After seeing Oyelowo turn in such masterful work as a leading man, it pains me to see him go back to being just another competent supporting player. He’s better than this, he deserves better, and now (the Academy be damned) the whole world knows it.

Moving on to the other nitpicks, I’m sorry to say that the visuals left me cold. Writer/director J.C. Chandor can set up a shot like nobody’s business, but way too much of the film had a piss-yellow hue that put me off. The costuming and makeup could have been better as well — Chastain and Brooks both went through the entire film with hairstyles that looked like comically bad wigs.

But for me, the most prominent nitpicks come in the third act. This naturally means that I can’t talk about them in great detail without getting into spoilers, but I’m going to try anyway. Suffice to say that there are a couple of actions and moments that were clearly plot-motivated in nature. They’re thematically relevant and plausible enough not to completely break the movie, but they’re still pushing right up against that line. Perhaps more importantly, there are revelations in the third act that cast serious doubt on some moments in the first and second. I’m sure the filmmakers were going for a misdirect, but it means that certain key moments in the plot were suddenly rendered nonsensical and meaningless.

Even so, A Most Violent Year is still a very good film. It’s superbly acted, wonderfully cast, and presented with an abundance of grit and heart. There are a lot of fascinating questions about the American Dream, all explored in suspenseful and intriguing ways. I’m not sure how the film would hold up on a second viewing, given certain things that we learn near the end, but I would still give this movie a full recommendation.

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